Dark issues lightened by humour

Michelle De Krester
Michelle De Kretser

Michelle De Kretser’s wry wit is always close to the surface, writes Patricia Thwaites.

THE LIFE TO COME
Michelle De Kretser
Allen & Unwin

By PATRICIA THWAITES

Michelle De Kretser is an Australian writer, winner of numerous literary awards and author of five other books, none of which I’ve read. However, after finishing this one, her name will be on my promise-to-read list.

Although she has lived in Australia since she was 14, De Kretser was born in Sri Lanka and, perhaps because of this, is able to drill into her adopted country’s culture, prejudices, class distinctions and casual racism in a clear-sighted way.  She does this through assembling a cast of diverse characters with different perspectives, all with Australian links, but some have outsiders’ views formed in their home countries of Sri Lanka and France.

The first few pages hint that this will be an original book, a witty  one with a quirky hard edge to it. We meet George Mershaw, an aspiring writer. Brought up in Melbourne, George now lives in Sydney, where he still swims "gratefully in its impersonal ease". 

He is visited by his mother, wearing her "dark Melbourne dress".  At lunch, there’s the not-so-subtle condescension shown by Melbournites to Sydneysiders when she pointedly asks a waiter for "really cold water",  alluding unfavourably to the city’s humidity and jacarandas. As she bends her head to her handbag, George mentally notes that after many variations, her hair is now "a soft yellow sunburst again, still with that central dark star" he’d seen as a child.  They then play a favourite game of swapping  names of hair salons. The mother and son relationship is sketched out in a few spare sentences.

George is the first character we meet, but remains a shadowy figure, helpful for providing a connection with the others. It’s his boarder, Pippa, who stays with us until the end as the main protagonist. Pippa is a marvellously handy creation, used unmercifully to expose modern foibles and fashions, and there will be few readers who won’t, to their discomfort, recognise bits of themselves in her persona. 

The writer doesn’t hesitate to take personal aim at her targets. Her voice comes through frequently: sharp anger at university academic neglect of Australian writers, the self-serving hypocrisy of many relationships,  the reliance characters like Pippa have on social media to boost their self-esteem. Pippa also has a talent for cooking, and even this attribute is used to make sly digs at modern eating habits, with a pronounced distaste for those of us who are meat-eaters.

Among the character mix are three Muslim immigrants, one of whom, Ash, is taken by his friend Lachlan to the family sheep station to meet "real Australians". They travel over endless empty plains that "brought to mind the desolation left by a plundering army - which wasn’t after all, very far from the mark", as he discovers when his friend points to a signpost.

"Bony Track" marks the place where "half a dozen Aborigines were tied up and shot in the 1830s". In spite of revelations like this, the author’s  wry wit is always close to the surface.  Shock at hearing the horrors of the wealthy sheep station’s origins exposed is followed by an injection of lightness as she follows Ash’s thwarted attempts to escape the cold of their inherited mansion.

De Kretser can combine humour with serious issues, has sympathy for her characters while exposing their weaknesses. I look forward to meeting many more of them.

- Patricia Thwaites is a retired Dunedin schoolteacher. 

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